• Published 22nd Jan 2016
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Redeem Us In Our Solemn Hour - Cynewulf



Midnight Aria, an initiate of the Lunar Rangers, finds herself in a losing battle that she was never meant to fight.

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I. Damascus Road

DAMASCUS ROAD

As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
















I.

A wing of batponies cuts through the night sky like a knife out of an alley: quick, silent, and with a savage grace. No theatrics. Just the sharp edge of a necessary reality. It takes years to learn how to fly in formation--pegasi spend a lot of time learning just how hard it can be as they grow--but to the eye it seems effortless.


They move as one, five ponies in lockstep high above the snow that clothes the sleeping earth. To any observer bound to walk in that snow, they would invisible. From the sky, it is even harder to see them. So few learn how to truly see.


But they are there. All but soundless aside from the tell-tale flap of wings, and even this they keep to a bare minimum, taking advantage of the howling winds as fortune lets them, flying in V that, if it were seen at all, would seem more sinister than one would expect. The leader adjusts, and like clockwork the wings move with him.


Even this is not dramatic in any sort of showy way. It is dramatic in a very harsh and real way--dramatic like a falling boulder falls to earth from a great distance, a mere working out of natural forces.


They hit the changeling scouts from above. Five against seven. It was never fair.



II.

My name is Midnight Aria, and I was never supposed to be here.


Ranger Initiates get left at home if there’s anything bigger than the average pony involved. Why? Because a ranger who isn’t ready is a liability. Also because the Rangers are different. Every single one of them is precious and hard to replace, and when you have a finite resource you guard it. So, usually, the kids stay home.


The others are checking bodies. I check a body. Mostly, this involves kicking once, grunting, and then moving on. I kick the changeling, and my hoof makes a strange grating sound against the chitin. It’s like a mug pulled along a counter. That’s the closest I can get.


The changeling does nothing. I didn’t really expect anything else from it, and I feel bad for kicking it. But we have to. Knight-Commander says that changelings are wily. They’ll try anything once, and that includes pretending to be dead until you turn your back and then… and then you learn what those fangs are for, and unlike ours, theirs are mildly lethal.

I’m alone among the bodies and notice only after a moment. The others moved away quickly. I do the same, and we all huddle together off to the side, where Knight Star Brand is talking in a low voice.


“You alright?” he asks me, where everyone can hear him. I don’t know why, but I’m horrified because of how genuine he is about it. I nod quickly. He nods back, and moves on, thank Luna.


“We came out more or less unscathed,” Lily says, and then sighs. “This time. I wouldn’t mind it always being this easy.”


Her voice is so calm. I wonder why it’s always so calm.


“It won’t, so there it is,” says Swift.


“Outfliers ride in two paired wings,” says Soft Fang thickly as he rubs his eyes. “Where’s the other one?”


“I was just wondering that myself, Fang,” Knight Star murmured, but we all heard him. It’s hard to whisper something past batponies. We have good hearing, if by good you mean that unicorns are kinda okay at magic and earth ponies sort of like apple trees. I mean, I assume that earth ponies like apple trees. There weren’t any in Shady Vale. Star Brand keeps going: “We’ll come up behind the vissir and then go home. Ruby Eyes is cooking.”


Everyone made little noises of relief at this. Lily could cook. Ruby could cook. Every other ranger in our wing was absolutely useless for it. Oh, they could prepare food, but it was the kind of food you made when you needed motivation to get back to civilization: the thought of eating it much longer would send even hardened warriors crawling back home.


It’s amazing what food will do for your spirits. You can forget all kinds of things. I try to forget most things.






III.


Star Brand gave up on the other wing after hours of searching. We were just covering the same ground and finding nothing. Maybe there had been only the one, we all told ourselves. Maybe.


I think the things I’ll never get used to the most is the feeling that starts in your hoof and shakes up your arm when you dive, and the way that ponies in the column look at me when I land.


I’m not scary. I’m not. I’m the least scary ranger there is who isn’t Ruby or Lily. Day-ponies used to think that we were vampires, but I look the least like a vampire of any batpony basically ever. I have small, stubby fangs and the only mare I’ve ever kissed said my ears were cute. I don’t even have red eyes. Just blue ones. I don’t have scary Lunar Guard armor, just my old Ranger duster. There’s no reason to be afraid of me.


But every time we land by the column, ponies scatter. At first, I thought they were just giving us landing room, and maybe they are. But they won’t look at you. They avert their eyes, like they’re afraid of you. Or maybe angry. Or maybe they don’t care. I wouldn’t know—I can’t see their eyes because they won’t show me.


We land. Everypony on the ground forms a ring around us, and just like every other time, I can’t help but think of quarantines.


Nopony says a word. We just walk. The column’s stopped, so our camp will be at the back like always. No need for directions or orders. Rangers prefer there to be as few orders as possible.


Our little fire is like another sun, but one that’s easier on the eyes. I’m still not used to living like a day-pony. Ruby is a day-pony, and she doesn’t mind, so it’s alright.


I see her rise and wave at us for a moment before turning back to whatever she was doing. There’s an extra pony at our fire, but after a moment, I know him. He’s the Pathfinder, the Solar, the pegasus with the weird manecut and the easy smile. I liked him. He ate with us at Ft. Geode too, before we went north.


I suppose that means that we’re eating fish tonight. I wonder dreamily if it’ll be Shady Vale style, all ullis spices and smoked and salty…


Knight-Commander is there as well, and he salutes us all as we approach the little sun in the center of our camp. “Hile,” he says, giving us all each a once-over sort of look. I don’t like mine.


“And you,” Knight Brand says.


“No injuries or losses, sir,” Lily says.


“I noticed,” Knight-Commander says with a little smile. “Glad to see it. Brand? I’d speak to thee a spell. Rest of you can sup with Ruby.”


They go off into the dark together. Knight-Commander isn’t from Shady Vale. He’s from the Old Colony, at the bottom of Ghastly Gorge. They speak strangely there, and they aren’t normal. Not that Knight-Commander is weird. He’s wonderful. He just… talks strange. And sometimes he says things that I don’t understand. And he’s more serious about… Luna.


Luna watches. She sees all. She protects. She redeems. We all say these things. We mouth them to ourselves before we go on patrol. We thank Luna for her mercies before we eat, even if we do it quietly. Luna knows all, feels all, understands all. But who believes it? And what would it be, to believe it?


I wonder sometimes if it counts as believing if you say something, and then laugh about it. But when no one is looking and the lights in your cave go out and you hear the scratch of rock snakes in your walls, you’ll say it again and this time you won’t laugh at all. Is that just covering the bases? I think it might be that when the rock snakes start crawling in your walls and they outnumber you, then what you really believe comes out. More and more, I think that.


Ruby smiles and gestures for me to join her and of course I do. We sit by side on her bedroll, spread out like a blanket. The snow has stopped falling, which is nice, and Ruby is offering me fish, which is better.


As I nibble (it’s hot) I wonder if maybe this is why they won’t look at us. One of the reasons I liked the pegasus across the fire, High Flight, is that pegasi don’t mind it when you eat something besides carrots. Not that carrots aren’t great. It’s just… we’re different. Very different.


I take a nice large bite.


But I’m not scary, I think again.








IV.


Lunar Rangers aren’t soldiers.


That should be clear. It’s not clear to most everyone. So, again: Lunar Rangers aren’t soldiers. Not really. I was never in the guard. Most of the others were. But I never was. I went straight to Ranger School and then straight to Ranger Station Nineteen, just south of the northern border.


I keep thinking that, over and over again, as the snow returns. It falls gently on my head, on my bedroll, on my pack. We aren’t. We aren’t and I’m not supposed to be here. Maybe I’ll go home tomorrow.


I liked Ranger Station Nineteen. I liked learning all of the paths and forests and hills. Ruby and Lily cooked, and Lily could do better with a kitchen around her. I had a cot, and it was good enough. Sometimes we trained with Knight-Commander Yuletide, and he was hard on Ruby and I. I liked it. Ruby did not. Soft Fang taught us to be patient and how to sit in a tree for hours, just waiting for the right moment. Lily taught us about herbs and how to handle two dozen injuries. Swift Dusk taught us how not to get bit in half by a timber wolf. Knight Brand taught us how to kick that timber wolf into splinters.


I even liked the day when they rolled us out of bed, threw us in a sack, and then dumped us out in the woods with a compass, a wineskin, and a few hearty “good luck”s as they sailed off in our flying chariot, laughing. That had been great! Ruby was pissed about it.


The snow has reached the station this time of year. It covers the evergreens and the hills and everything is beautiful. There’s no evergreens here for the snow to cover. Just… flatness. Rocks. There are hills, but they aren’t my hills.


But, the point is, Lunar Rangers aren’t soldiers.


Usually, Rangers are closer to a cross between park rangers and scouts. Our main job is keeping an eye on the frontier. You watch for timberwolves and ice drakes and the occasional bandit, things that cause trouble. We don’t usually even kill. You get taught how to make anything smaller than a Grand Dragon decide to go home without hurting it or getting eaten alive.


Rangers are the ones who dig you out of the snow when a blizzard catches you by surprise. During my initiate period at the station, Lily and Soft Fang rescued a little unicorn colt. He’d been with a colt scout camping trip and taken a few dozen wrong turns, but they found him.


I think about him sometimes, after dinner. I remember his face whenever the refugees refuse to meet my eyes, or when they shuffle in the darkness beyond our campfire light. Their eyes are so unlike his, their faces are masks compared to his. He smiled at us and his eyes were bright and blue like a cloudless sky. The shivering masses around us have eyes like little stars, catching the light. They look at fires like day-ponies do: right into the flame, and you can see the fire dancing in their looks. It’s about the only thing alive there.




V.



Another morning. The third morning out from the smoldering town. What had its name been again? Something about rocks. Crystals. Everything here was one of the two. Shady Vale was a honeycomb of caves and dark passages, yes, but it was situated in a lush forest. There was a village of batponies in the trees a mile down the path who lived in the trees in houses bolted to ancient trunks. Our caves were full of greenery. Real greenery, not fungus or underground stuff. Flowers, all kinds of flowers, in little boxes and alcoves. Green spaces wherever we could fit them. Great caverns where you could fly above the miniature trees. All of it kept alive by old Western secrets. I don’t really understand how it works, but…


Rangers rise early and they rise quickly. I can’t lay in my bedroll thinking.


I get up and put my things in my pack and set it all with everyone else’s. We’ll decide how to divvy the weight later.


The others are already fully awake, but I’m not. Back at the station, I would have been, but here? It’s hard to sleep at night. Really hard. I do it anyway, because sleep comes easy after flying, but I’ll wake up a few hours later. Exhausted, back to sleep. Wake up. Sleep. Over and over, three or four or five times a night. My legs ache and my head hurts. My stomach rumbles. That’s not from the lack of good sleep, though.


Lily hears me. She’s sharp, and it’s the kind of detail she notices. She waves me over, and then throws me something over the ashes of our fire. I fumble at it with my hooves and then reach out and catch it between my teeth.


And it crumbles. Huh. Cornbread. Western-style, like from the old country. It’s made with peppers. Lily mouths something to herself. I know she doesn’t make sound because I would hear it. I know what she’s saying, though. Luna protects, Luna provides.


“Enjoy it,” she says while I do just that. “Ruby is out with the Knight-Commander for the day.”


“Same as last time,” I say between bites.


“Not quite,” she tells me. I look around, and see that Soft Fang and Swift are checking their hoofblades. I look away. Ruby is stretching her wings. She probably has the prettiest wings, and probably they’ll be the strongest eventually, too. Twice my potential when it comes to flying. Almost as much maneuverability as an above-average pegasus.


I raise an eyebrow at her.



“Ruby’s on all day. Yuletide’s got you lying fallow,” Lily said, and I blinked at her.



“What did I do?”



“He said you would say that. It’s not punishment, child. You’re losing your day-sight and Ruby’s nightvision and sleep schedule has gone off-kilter. We can handle true deprivation, but you two are initiates.”



I frown. “But she’ll be on all day. Isn’t that worse?”



“I said that, didn’t I? Sorry.” She looked around us. The column was beginning to move. The word was moving through the camp. “We’re limiting you and our resident trueblood to only one patrol a day until we make it to Amethyst City.”



I’m not sure how to feel. Part of me is insulted. There’s a voice somewhere saying that it’s because I’m a mare, isn’t it, it always is—but Lily took two patrols yesterday and the Knight-Commander never treats her differently. The part of me that takes over whenever we find outfliers and I go away for awhile, it’s angry because it’s strong. But me, Midnight? I’m happy. I don’t have to go on patrol at all. No more going away or strong winds sapping my strength. I’ll still fly up and down the column, obviously, and I’m still on guard, but its better.


I hope Ruby’s patrol goes well. I ask Lily which patrol she’ll be on when Commander Yuletide comes by to collect his morning meal.



Yuletide, our Knight-Commander, is tall. That’s the first thing everypony notices. The second thing that they notice is that his ears aren’t tuffed and that he has high aristocratic cheekbones. You can see his Canterlonian heritage. Unicorn written all over him. I wonder what it was like, growing up in Old Colony with a unicorn mother?



“Thee’s been told, aye?” he sort of grumble-growls in my direction. I nod and he huffs. “Good. Don’t be dawdling. You need to make up the slack of a missing wing, you do.”



He stalks off, I guess to talk to Knight Brand about divvying up the patrol duties or something. I don’t know what officers do. I’m not even sure what Rangers do. Not all the way.










VI.





The column in the daytime is like a snake or a river. I think its more like a river than a snake, actually. Snakes move together. Rivers don’t. They look like they do, but they really don’t. Snakes have purpose. Rivers just keep going. The water, the rocks, the silt, all of it—it’ll go wherever it can whenever it can, as fast as it the water makes the rest of it go.



High up, between the refugees and the cloud cover, I can see the river swell its banks. Its hard to keep ponies in large groups moving together in snow. It was actually part of my training, getting ponies not used to long winter travel moving and warm. We talked about convincing nervous or frightened ponies that they just had to keep going—set goals, do whatever you can do immediately… there was one other. I struggle to think of it.



But a light shines up at me and I wince. I’ll remember it later. I think that’s the pathfinder calling me back down.



I dive.



I love to fly. I guess that’s pretty normal, for a pony with wings. If I didn’t like flying, they’d be pretty worthless—imagine a pegasus afraid of heights! Or a unicorn who didn’t like magic.



But I do. I love it. I love the feeling of falling right out of the sky of your own volition, folding your wings in. The wind runs over your coat and pulls at your mane. It’s what I imagine it might be like to have a unicorn brush you, except… faster. And better. Definitely better.



Midnight the Comet crash lands much like a comet does, which meant I threw some snow around and grinned like a fool when I landed next to Pathfinder Last Call. Just fast enough to look daring, not fast enough to hurt too bad. He didn’t seem to think it was funny. The refugees behind him didn’t give much of a response either. I tried not to sigh. I don’t know why that bothered me.



“You called?” I asked.



The pathfinders in the north wear iron masks with tiny eyeslits to limit the reflection off of the snow—its blinding. You’d think that it would be bad for night-sighters, and it is, but day-ponies don’t have the extra membrane that helps me handle extreme brightness. Day-ponies don’t have a lot of things.



A little behind him, I see the pegasus from last night. What was his name? I always forget. Gale. That’s it. Something Gale. Gale Something.



Last Call grunts at me. “I called you. I had a contact up ahead on the eyes-forward. Think one of you could check it out before it’s right on top of us?”



I nod. “If Gale can flag Soft Fang, then he can tell you who’ll go.”



“Right. Initiate.” He clicked his tongue. “Ocean Gale! Call down the other one.”




It only took a minute, and we continued without stopping. Soft landed a little ahead and matched our strides. “What’s wrong?” he said, his flat drawl warping the words. “Strays? Patrol?”




“Don’t know. Need eyes over there to see it,” Last Call said.




They talk. I listen, but mostly I watch around us.



The refugees huddle closer to the Pathfinders, but not to Last Call. At first, I wonder if he is like us, but as Soft Fang steps away, I realize that he is not like us. Not in this way, at least, for the eyes that watch are watching the one with fangs, aren’t they? The one who flies day and night keeping them from the wolf and the changeling, driving off the patrol and asking only for a few minutes of solace by the fire. Watching, always watching.



I try not to be angry about it. I try not to let it bother me. Perhaps it bothers me because it is easier to care about other things when the alternative is…



“Rook, you’re up,” he says to me. His voice is always a little slow, as if weighing each word. “Fly ahead and see what there is to see. Make a few sweeps. Thorough but don’t take too long, got it? It’s just me and the featherbrain here.”




I nod. “Yes sir.”




He smiles at me. “Well, off you go,” he says lightly, and heads back into the air. Rangers aren’t much for formalities. Of course, we’re not supposed to be ones for campaigning, either, and yet here I am. And here I go, up into the air. At least in the air it is easier to forget what I am doing.

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